Could the EU’s Universal COVID Passport Serve as a Blueprint for the US?

Keerthi Vedantam

Keerthi Vedantam is a bioscience reporter at dot.LA. She cut her teeth covering everything from cloud computing to 5G in San Francisco and Seattle. Before she covered tech, Keerthi reported on tribal lands and congressional policy in Washington, D.C. Connect with her on Twitter, Clubhouse (@keerthivedantam) or Signal at 408-470-0776.

Could the EU’s Universal COVID Passport Serve as a Blueprint for the US?
Photo by @shawnanggg on Unsplash

With the European Union weighing blocking American travelers from visiting, a group representing hundreds of the world's airlines called on countries around the world earlier this week to adopt a COVID digital passport used by the E.U.

"In the absence of a single global standard for digital vaccine certificates, it should serve as a blueprint for other nations looking to implement digital vaccination certificates to help facilitate travel and its associated economic benefits," Conrad Clifford, deputy director general of the International Air Transport Association said in a statement.

The E.U.'s solution, a standardized paper and digital certificate that could be used across the E.U, was first proposed in November and has now reached full adoption in all 27 E.U. countries, and even non-E.U. countries like Switzerland, Turkey and Norway. It could also be appealing to global companies as they implement stricter rules requiring workers and customers to get vaccinated or tested.

Jakub Hlávka, a health policy fellow at the USC Schaeffer Institute who has been looking at the ethics of COVID passports, said these types of passports are especially useful for countries who don't want to limit travel and hurt tourism, while also slowing the spread of the coronavirus.

"A vaccination travel certificate would actually prevent the introduction of cases from countries not covered under travel bans, most notably Mexico, where a lot of people can get infected with delta and bring it into the U.S. without any strong precautions in place," he said.

Here's how it works:

The Digital COVID Certificate, as the passport is called, uses a framework that the E.U. developed so all digital COVID vaccination cards are standardized and can be verified quickly in every participating country.

Each country has a digital and paper version of their vaccination cards. Some countries, like France, have created a downloadable app that stores the DCC. France's app TousAntiCovid, and Italy's Immuni, allow residents to upload their vaccination record and negative COVID tests. Other countries like Belgium rely on a web app or a saved PDF.

There is no universal platform that's used across the E.U.

Non-E.U. residents can ask the country they are traveling to for a DCC, provided that country will accept their proof of vaccination. Only four vaccines (Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca) are accepted by the E.U., meaning Covidshield, a vaccine that has been distributed across low-income countries, is not accepted by the E.U. at large (though some countries will accept it).

The certificate contains one's name, date of birth, COVID-19 vaccine or test information, the date the record was issued and, in a QR code, a unique digital signature every health provider administering the vaccine has.

This digital signature confirms patients have gotten the vaccine, and every country in the E.U. has access to those signatures to verify the legitimacy of the vaccination record. Other information like name and date of birth are not recorded.

The E.U.'s fix for safe travelling in a post-pandemic world is the most-used solution, allowing people to move within the member countries while allowing each flexibility. The IATA said 60 other countries are using the DCC as a blueprint for their own national system.

California's Digital COVID Vaccine Cards

The widespread adoption of a standardized pass in Europe is in stark contrast to the U.S., which has not pursued any national form of verification outside of the easy-to-replicate CDC-issued paper vaccine cards. States have come up with their own solutions, like California's digital vaccination record and New York's Excelsior Pass, both of which can be used to enter businesses that have some sort of vaccine mandate. But neither are valid for travel in and out of the country, even as the Biden administration continues to uphold the E.U. travel ban.

Creating a National COVID Passport

The biggest hurdle for the U.S. is to build a digital infrastructure that maintains a national registry. That would require real-time data collection from every state. Right now, states have separate data collection streams that harbor information about who is vaccinated, and when they got vaccinated. If a California resident got one vaccine in California, and another in a different state, California's digital vaccination record won't show proof of the second vaccine.

Most countries with a national digital vaccination standard are able to use existing infrastructure from having a form of universal health care. The E.U. leveraged its eHealth Network, a network used by every member of the union. Israel, which developed the Green Pass, also has a compulsory health care plan.

Many states in the U.S. haven't created a centralized state system, making it difficult for 50 states and U.S. territories to coordinate on a standardized system. But the CDC and other agencies regularly collect state and municipal data to track the spread of COVID-19.

Hlávka said the U.S. might be better off considering an opt-in registry that is recognized by other countries, whereby those who want to travel out of the country can voluntarily upload their vaccination record and show proof.

"If we asked a few programmers in Silicon Valley, we could have this in a few hours," Hlávka said. "This is not technically difficult."

And as the U.S. travel ban on the E.U. persists, and the E.U. considers banning American travelers as well, Hlávka said the lack of standardization and a national system is preventing families from reconnecting and hurting tourism.

"The status quo is hurting the U.S. economy and reopening travel, possibly using a mutually recognized vaccination certificate/passport, would be a safe way to reopen borders and increase incentives to get vaccinated," he said.

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'Open Letter' Proposing 6-Month AI Moratorium Continues to Muddy the Waters Around the Technology

Lon Harris
Lon Harris is a contributor to dot.LA. His work has also appeared on ScreenJunkies, RottenTomatoes and Inside Streaming.
'Open Letter' Proposing 6-Month AI Moratorium Continues to Muddy the Waters Around the Technology
Evan Xie

AI continues to dominate the news – not just within the world of technology, but mainstream news sources at this point – and the stories have entered a by-now familiar cycle. A wave of exciting new developments, releases and viral apps is followed by a flood of alarm bells and concerned op-eds, wondering out loud whether or not things are moving too fast for humanity’s own good.

With OpenAI and Microsoft’s GPT-4 arriving a few weeks ago to massive enthusiasm, we were overdue for our next hit of jaded cynicism, warning about the potentially dire impact of intuitive chatbots and text-to-image generators.

Sure enough, this week, more than 1,000 signatories released an open letter calling for all AI labs to pause training any new systems more powerful than GPT-4 for six months.

What does the letter say?

The letter calls out a number of familiar concerns for anyone who has been reading up on AI development this past year. On the most immediate and practical level, it cautions that chatbots and automated text generators could potentially eliminate vast swathes of jobs previously filled by humans, while “flood[ing] our information channels with propaganda and untruth.” The letter then continues into full apocalypse mode, warning that “nonhuman minds” could eventually render us obsolete and dominate us, risking “loss of control of our civilization.”

The six-month break, the signatories argue, could be used to jointly develop shared safety protocols around AI design to ensure that they remain “safe beyond a reasonable doubt.” They also suggest that AI developers work in collaboration with policymakers and politicians to develop new laws and regulations around AI and AI research.

The letter was signed by several AI developers and experts, along with tech industry royalty like Elon Musk and Steve Wozniak. TechCrunch does point out that no one from inside OpenAI seems to have signed it, nor Anthropic, a group of former OpenAI developers who left to design their own “safer” chatbots. OpenAI CEO Sam Altman did speak to the Wall Street Journal this week in reference to the letter, noting that the company has not yet started work on GPT-5 and that time for safety tests has always been built into their development process. He referred to the letter’s overall message as “preaching to the choir.”

Critics of the letter

The call for an AI ban was not without critics, though. Journalist and investor Ben Parr noted that the vague language makes it functionally meaningless, without any kind of metrics to gauge how “powerful” an AI system has become or suggestions for how to enforce a global AI ban. He also notes that some signatories, including Musk, are OpenAI and ChatGPT competitors, potentially giving them a personal stake in this fight beyond just concern for the future of civilization. Others, like NBC News reporter Ben Collins, suggested that the dire AI warnings could be a form of dystopian marketing.

On Twitter, entrepreneur Chris Pirillo noted that “the genie is already out of the bottle” in terms of AI development, while physicist and author David Deutsch called out the letter for confusing today’s AI apps with the Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) systems still only seen in sci-fi films and TV shows.

Legitimate red flags

Obviously, the letter speaks to relatively universal concerns. It’s easy to imagine why writers would be concerned by, say, BuzzFeed now using AI to write entire articles and not just quizzes. (The website isn’t even using professional writers to collaborate with and copy-edit the software anymore. The new humans helping out “Buzzy the Robot” to compose its articles are non-editorial employees from the client partnership, account management, and product management teams. Hey, it’s just an “experiment,” freelancers!)

But it does once more raise some red flags about the potentially misleading ways that some in the industry and the media are discussing AI, which continues to make these kinds of high-level discussions around the technology more cumbersome and challenging.

A recent viral Twitter thread credited ChatGPT-4 with saving a dog’s life, leading to a lot of breathlessly excited coverage about how computers were already smarter than your neighborhood veterinarian. The owner entered the dog’s symptoms into the chatbot, along with copies of its blood work, and ChatGPT responded with the most common potential ailments. As it turns out, a live human doctor tested the animal for one of the bot’s suggested illnesses and accurately guessed the diagnosis. So the computer is, in a very real sense, a hero.

Still, considering what might be wrong with dogs based on their symptoms isn’t what ChatGPT does best. It’s not a medical or veterinary diagnostic tool, and it doesn’t have a database of dog ailments and treatments at the ready. It’s designed for conversations, and it’s just guessing as to what might be wrong with the animal based on the texts on which it was trained, sentences and phrases that it has seen connected in human writing in the past. In this case, the app guessed correctly, and that’s certainly good news for one special pupper. But there’s no guarantee it would get the right answer every time, or even most of the time. We’ve seen a lot of evidence that ChatGPT is perfectly willing to lie, and can’t actually tell the difference between truth and a lie.

There’s also already a perfectly solid technology that this person could have used to enter a dog’s symptoms and research potential diagnoses and treatments: Google search. A search results page also isn’t guaranteed to come up with the correct answer, but it’s as if not more reliable in this particular use case than ChatGPT-4, at least for now. A quality post on a reliable veterinary website would hopefully contain similar information to the version ChatGPT pulled together, except it would have been vetted and verified by an actual human expert.

Have we seen too many sci-fi movies?

A response published in Time by computer scientist Eliezer Yudkowsky – long considered a thought leader in the development of artificial general intelligence – argues that the open letter doesn’t go far enough. Yudkowsky suggests that we’re currently on a path toward “building a superhumanly smart AI,” which will very likely result in the death of every human being on the planet.

No, really, that’s what he says! The editorial takes some very dramatic turns that feel pulled directly from the realms of science-fiction and fantasy. At one point, he warns: “A sufficiently intelligent AI won’t stay confined to computers for long. In today’s world you can email DNA strings to laboratories that will produce proteins on demand, allowing an AI initially confined to the internet to build artificial life forms or bootstrap straight to postbiological molecular manufacturing.” This is the actual plot of the 1995 B-movie “Virtuosity,” in which an AI serial killer app (played by Russell Crowe!) designed to help train police officers grows his own biomechanical body and wreaks havoc on the physical world. Thank goodness Denzel Washington is around to stop him.

And, hey, just because AI-fueled nightmares have made their way into classic films, that doesn’t mean they can’t also happen in the real world. But it nonetheless feels like a bit of a leap to go from text-to-image generators and chatbots – no matter how impressive – to computer programs that can grow their own bodies in a lab, then use those bodies to take control of our military and government apparatus. Perhaps there’s a direct line between the experiments being done today and truly conscious, self-aware, thinking machines down the road. But, as Deutsch cautioned in his tweet, it’s important to remember that AI and AGI are not necessarily the exact same thing. - Lon Harris

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What We're Reading...

- Roku announced plans to cut expenses by laying off 200 more employees, 6% of its remaining workforce.

- According to Bloomberg, only about 270,000 Sony PlayStation VR2 headsets were sold in March, an underwhelming start for the new gadget.

- Microsoft plans to show more ads to Bing AI chatbot users.

- Google denied a report in The Information alleging that it trained its Bard AI chatbot on ChatGPT data.


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EVGo’s Stock Surges on Better-Than-Expected Q4 Earnings

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Samson Amore

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